Audio Games: Inspiring a Mission of Accessibility

The work that I do these days has a lot of inspirations behind it. We’ve been through many of them on this blog. Today, though, I want to talk about audio games, and their influence on my way of thinking. There are hardworking developers, usually a single individual or team of 2, that make and have made audio only games for the blind, and they don’t get enough credit for their work. It’s time to give them what I can.

The inability to play a lot of video games leaves a lot of holes in our entertainment choices compared to your average sighted individual. Audio game developers sprung forth from this emptiness, seeking to fill those gaps with quality games of all types. Their motivation was to make games resembling those everyone else knew and loved which could be played by the blind. To me, though, they served as both inspiration, and proof positive that my ideas could work.

I can’t even begin to list all the inspirations for me that have come from audio games, but I can go over a few. Audio Games like GMA’s Shades of Doom showed me that shooting enemies blind was possible if you had enough audio indication of where they were. It also showed me that, with a little extra input, we could locate objects lying on the ground. It even had a few secrets for people willing to blow stuff up, which of course I was. It’s a fantastic game that I still enjoy playing today.

Another pretty sweet game called Superliam, created by L-works, taught me that even side-scrolling adventures with occasional platforming elements weren’t out of the question. A fast-paced, sometimes quite intense thrillride, Superliam’s gameplay was frenetic and fun, and I finally got to experience those super Mario moments where you accidentally jump just a little too far off a platform. Whoops!

My mind continued to expand when I played a game called Monkey Business, currently owned by Draconis Entertainment. Monkey business offered up a 3D environment filled with things to find and interact with. One particular level is actually an old western town, and is probably the best example of this. Hear the piano playing in the saloon, walk toward it, and right on into the saloon, where anything might happen next. It felt alive in a way that Shades of Doom didn’t quite replicate with its tight corridors. I personally believe, as crazy as its premis is, it holds up as one of the best audio games to date.

Remember a long time ago when I published my ideas for how a point and click adventure game could be made accessible through the use of interactive menus? Well, that idea was also inspired by audio games like Grizzly Gulch, and Chillingham, both from a developer known as Bavisoft. Sadly, as I understand it, you can no longer play Grizzly Gulch on modern systems, but I’ve heard Chillingham still works. At any rate, those games used systems like that for all of their gameplay. Navigation, inventory management, using one item with another, all of it. Honestly, even combat was sort of menu based, as targets would appear on your left, in the center, or on the right, and you used your arrow keys to switch between those 3 options. Actually, if you were insane, the hard difficulty levels of those games switched things up from 3 options to 5 during combat. It was not easy. I remember both of those games fondly, and still wish Chillingham actually got its sequel. Freakin cliffhangers.

I believe the point has been made here. Audio game developers were the original outside the box thinkers. Their desire to create, and their ingenuity allowed them to come up with amazing ideas that, as far as I’m concerned, developers can apply today. Everyone out there who is a developer of any game, and is looking to make their game blind accessible should check out some audio games. Learn how those developers got around the issues that might exist, and build off of that knowledge to make something awesome happen. These days, we’ve got zombie shooters just for us, we’ve got a card battle game, we even have a couple RPG’s like A Hero’s Call thanks to the entrepreneurship of Out of Sight Games. We’ve got all these, and more as well. You can find more information, and eeven links to these games, on www.audiogames.net

One final clarification. While audio games are, as many other things are, an essential part of the groundwork for making games accessible to the blind, they are still games produced by small teams. This is why I have said before that audio games don’t quite match the scope of today’s epic experiences. This is why the mission of accessibility holds true. You just read that there are actually a lot of audio games out there, and we love them, but we still want to play what everyone else is playing. We still want to play EVERYTHING else. Thanks all for reading, and of course, continue to be awesome!

To the Audio Teams: The Art of Sound

Dear video game audio designers, producers, mixers, editors, engineers, technicians, quality analysts, composers, and any audio-related field I forgot to mention,
This letter from a blind gamer goes out to all of you. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure I can speak for most blind gamers out there when I say thank you. Thank you for putting in the time, and making the effort. Thank you for adding those little extra touches that we notice all the time. The things that a sighted player doesn’t necessarily need, but that add to the audio experience. Thank you for your own desire to make games sound as alive and vibrant as possible. Thank you for immersing yourselves in the material so the experience you create matches the story being told. Thank you for being awesome.

We blind gamers bow before you, audio teams. Without you, we couldn’t do what we do. Without those little touches, in some cases, we would be further hindered in our efforts. I’ve said before that blind accessibility is all about information, and the things you guys do with audio give us that information, sometimes whether or not you’re aware of it. I commonly use the example of Kingdom Hearts, where equipping different keychains causes Saura’s footstep and attack sounds to change based on which one is equipped. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is thanks to an audio team that cared to make it so. Because of that, we can tell you by taking a few swings what we have equipped, and from there branch out into how much damage it does, what bonuses it has, and so on. The importance of these little things cannot be underestimated.

But let’s go further. Things get crazier when we consider things that have ambient sound, but don’t necessarily need to. The Death’s Breath crafting component in Diablo 3, save points and treasure spheres in Final Fantasy 13, all of these things and more are examples of necessary objects that we can now locate within a certain distance thanks to audio. Without those ambient sounds, they would just be lost to us. That’s huge! It’s so simple and easy for you audio guys to do, but it’s so, so very helpful.

But really, we’re only scratching the surface here. Let’s go even deeper, and discuss the crazy things audio teams are doing these days, like accurate surround sound positioning and even 3D audio in some cases, realistic echoes based on the objects sound is bouncing off of, (often used to indicate distance between, say, you and a companion), and even dimming of sounds that are blocked by an object such as a wall. The tremendous amount of code that must take is mindblowing, and the fact that you guys work to perfect it, to make it sound right, is inspiring. Let me just tell you now, in case you had any doubt, that it’s worth it.

Now we can’t talk about audio without talking about music. Music is a huge, huge part of creating an atmosphere in a game. I once spoke directly with Austin Wintory, and told him that the music in Journey is what really told me the story. It was true. The music in that game is powerful. It connected with me on a deep, deep level. It made me feel every emotion right along with my fiancé, who was actually the one playing it. I felt the joy of flying for the first time, I felt the rising tension as we got ever closer to our goal… It was an astounding feat of scoring for which Mr. Wintory has received much praise, but if you ask me, not enough. As I’ve said, I wasn’t even the one playing Journey, but when it was all said and done, I felt as though I had. I cannot think of another game that has achieved that effect on me personally.

That is not to say that I don’t love other game music, because I do. There’s a really old game called Stonekeep, which was one of the first games I ever owned. During one part of that game, you wander from the relatively dangerous, though not-too-difficult sewers beneath Stonekeep into the lair of a monstrous evil creature that you, at some point, must defeat in order to proceed. The brilliance of this is that the creature does not immediately attack you. It is, in fact, the music, which changes drastically and ominously the moment you step into the lair, that alerts you to be prepared if you plan on moving forward. After all, the lair itself is not large, and should you actually proceed despite the warning the music provides, then the additional warnings provided by the piles of bones in the area, you will find the beast lerking just a couple corners away. It’s a wonderful, powerful moment in the game, and for me, mostly because of the music.

There are plenty of examples of moments like that in games, but I particularly like that one. The power of music is, I think, becoming more respected these days. I feel like people are taking greater care with music, and that is very much appreciated. Look at, for instance, what Crystal Dynamics did with the first Tomb Raider reboot, scoring every single encounter differently, and using a dynamic music system to make it all flow depending on what you did. That is… That is awesome! There is just no other word for it. Even Killer Instinct for the Xbox One does awesome music tricks, picking up the background music depending on the size of the combos you’re doing. What better way to make you feel good about pulling off an amazing feat of fighting game excellence than to deliver the rousing chorus of that level’s music? It fits perfectly, and it’s also awesome.

I feel as though I could sit here and write about game audio for hours. However, I think that what it boils down to is this. Audio guys, you are our lighting. You are our graphics. You are our art. You are our atmosphere. You are our information. Sometimes, you are our story. You are essential. You are needed. And most of all, you are awesome. Thanks for reading. As always, consider supporting this content if you can, however you can, and continue to be awesome!

Twitch: Another Day, Another Fight

Hey everyone, it’s rant time! Today’s topic, the gameplay streaming service known as Twitch. “But Brandon,” I hear you say. “You use Twitch yourself!” I do, because certain aspects of Twitch make it the best option for what I am doing. However, that does not mean it is free from all judgement, and ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to judge.

We of the disabled community are fighting inaccessibility all the time. Sometimes we fight it where we work. Sometimes we fight it when we go out. Sometimes we fight it in video games, as I do. It feels like all day, every day, we’re fighting society’s refusal to simply accommodate us. If that sounds like whining to you, you’re probably not disabled, and have no idea how honest I am being right now. Regardless of what you might think, access to everything should be a wright for all. Inaccessibility is more than a lack of access, it’s a lack of freedom to do things and experience things others can. It is wrong.

I have been working to correct assumptions, and right wrongs where I can where video games are concerned. Video games have been my focus because I have always loved them, and as a result I’m passionate about playing them. Long story short, this brings me to where I am today, attempting to educate and entertain with my gameplay analysis and discussions about accessibility and whatnot. Wouldn’t it figure, though, that one of the tools I use to do this, (this is where we come back to Twitch), is now partially inaccessible?

The worst part of this situation is that there used to be no problem. Even up until a couple weeks ago, the ability to edit info on Twitch videos, and then export them to Youtube was perfectly accessible. Oh sure there had been problems before that while the new site was in beta, but it seemed as though all had been fixed. I actually thought that perhaps my concerns had been listened to and addressed. I was wrong.

Everything was fine the first couple days after I started doing this full time. I was delighted with how things were going. Then, somewhere, some switch got flipped, or some process was altered, and everything changed. Suddenly, attempting to export my video pulled up a page that a screenreader can’t even read. Even using additional tactics such as Optical Character Recognition wasn’t enough to get an idea of where I should be clicking. Overnight, this functionality has become totally inaccessible to the blind.

As before, I attempted to get a response from Twitch’s support account on Twitter, @twitchsupport. I had heard they really do answer requests. But just as before, I got no response. My supposedly more highly-valued affiliate status doesn’t seem to matter much to them, because addressing accessibility concerns is, as it is for many companies I’ve learned over the years, too big a task. Or, if anything, it is something that is placed on the back burner, and I mean the one in the way, way back, which is covered in dust from disuse.

So how have I overcome this issue? Well, for the moment, I have actually recruited a friend of mine. This friend has graciously agreed to, with my permission, log into my Twitch account every day, and export the relevant videos. Is that not the dumbest and most unnecessary thing you’ve heard all day? It’s necessity. It’s responding to Twitch ignoring the problem. It’s doing what I have to do to make something out of this. I do it because I want people to see these videos and learn from some, and be entertained by all. This work matters to me. It’s just a shame I have to take such measures in order to do it.

I’m not expecting a miracle to spring forth from this blog. This is, as advertised, a rant. I would love to see change. I would love for this to result in a conversation with the Twitch development team. Believe me, it’s a conversation I would love to have. But I’m going to leave you with this. Consider, for a moment, what it means that I don’t expect anything. It is, unfortunately, still a general expectation that people will not listen or care, and that’s a sad state of affairs. At any rate, I’m done for now. Thanks as always for reading, and continue to be awesome!

A Love Letter to Choice of Games and Hosted Games

Dear Choice of Games and Hosted Games,
This is a love letter to you from a blind gamer, me. I know you get a lot of these. I know your mailboxes must be full of candy hearts and expensive chocolates, but I couldn’t stop myself from writing one of my own. You see, I unabashedly love you. I love your words. I love your happy moments, and your sad ones. I love the choices you offer, and I love their consequences. When there is a long stretch between new games, I ache. I weep. But then, when that email finally reaches my inbox, when I learn that a new release has finally arrived, my heart soars. I stretch my arms toward the heavens, and I smile, for you have, at last, returned.

It is impossible for me to truly convey what you give to blind gamers like myself. It is a sentiment that I know has been echoed by others, but it is one that I wish every single Choice of Games and Hosted Games author could hear. Your engine, the way it essentially presents itself as web pages, is completely, 100% accessible to us. That outward simplicity which hides so much inner complexity is completely and totally playable by us, and I… We couldn’t be happier.

We live in a world filled with story-driven content that we cannot take part in. So many narrative-based video games are still completely inaccessible to us. We could watch playthroughs of these games, but then we aren’t the ones making the choices. It isn’t our personal experience. Not so with you. You offer us worlds even we can explore. You offer us a moldable, shapeable character that we get to create, and a story in that character’s life that, for a little while, we get to live and experience. There are hundreds of characters to meet, foes to join and defeat, and worlds to either save or destroy, all thanks to the choices we make, and the character personality we crafted.

I just wish I could express to you how big a deal that is. I’ve been a gamer my entire life, enjoying the games I can play, and struggling with those I wanted to, but ultimately couldn’t. I’ve also been a reader, and a lover of stories of all kinds. To have your utterly immense and completely accessible library of stories and experiences literally right at my fingertips is mind-boggling and amazing in a way that I cannot properly convey to you. You are awesome!

I know what you’re thinking. “Why now? We’ve been around for years. Where is this letter coming from?” Very true. This has honestly been building for a long time. With tremendous titles like Zombie Exidus, Hero’s Rise, and perhaps the most technically impressive, Tin Star, my desire to write something like this has steadily increased. The final straw, though, was one of your newest games, Choice of Magics. I have now played through this particular story in its entirety 3 times, and I am considering a fourth. Each time, I’ve gotten an ending that was completely different from the ones before it, but it’s about more than just the ending. The ways in which the story can change, even as it’s going on, are so drastic. There are things that can happen that I didn’t believe until they did. It’s an incredible experience, and up there with your best. It is what made me decide it was time to write this. You should be proud of it, as should its author.

Now I’ll admit that I’m also a lover of audio drama, both for good audio design and great perfomances. For that reason, there’s a part of me that wishes your games had the backing of music, sound effects, and voice acting. I think experiences like that could be incredible, yet I also understand why that’s not a part of your design. To have a fully realized video game version of the adventures you guys create, though, (and a fully accessible one at that), would draw in others who haven’t checked you out for whatever reason, and I guarantee they would stay. Here’s why.

It goes so far beyond accessibility with you guys. Both Choice of Games and Hosted Games stand as proof that it is possible to write games in which your decisions matter, something that it seems most developers struggle with. I don’t know if it’s because of publishing deadlines, or the unwillingness to put in the work, but to reach an ending of a choice-heavy game only to discover it’s basically the same as the last ending you got is never fun, and with you guys that almost never happens. If someone directly transferred some of the amazing works I’ve mentioned here into video games, they would be spectacular.

Please understand that this is basically an idle fantasy. As successful as I think they’d be, I ultimately would not seek to change your vision. Personally, though, I wish EVERYONE appreciated you guys as much as I do. I know you get tons of praise as it is, and I am delighted at your success, but I wish everyone who hasn’t checked you out could tear their eyes away from those graphical masterpieces for long enough to check out the unrivaled stories you have to offer. Don’t get me wrong, I know some of those graphical masterpieces are truly great games, and I wish I could play in them too. Still, you guys deserve to be held high for what you do, and that is my goal with this letter. I’m putting you on a pedestal whether you like it or not.

Aside from being a love letter, this is also a thank you. Thank you to the Choice of Games team for having this vision, and thank you for crafting the choice script engine. Thank you to the authors who spend countless hours creating these masterpieces, and putting in the work to keep all those variables in line. I don’t know how I would manage to do what you guys do. Thanks even to the other Choice of Games readers and Hosted Games, who have given them the attention and success they deserve. Thank you all.

Sincerely,
Brandon Cole
Your not-so-secret admirer

For those who haven’t, seriously, check out their stuff on IOS, or even play it on their web site if you like. I don’t think you’ll regret it. And as always, thanks for reading. Please comment, leave feedback, and conversate. Continue to be awesome!

A Cheater’s Path to Accessibility

Hey folks, it’s me again, your blind accessibility dude. As you know, one of the things I do is talk about how we play games that aren’t necessarily intended to be accessible for us. Well, mostly back in the old days, one answer to that question was a quite fun and interesting one. That answer, ladies and gentlemen, is cheat codes!

When I was a young boy in the 90’s, I had a computer, and very few games which were given to me by a friend of our family. Two of those games were Doom, and Doom2. At first, I didn’t really se these as playable, though I had been messing around with many console games by that point. At first I thought it was the shooting, but that notion was dispelled once I learned that, in those older games at least, you only had to be facing your enemy to fire upon them. The real reason turned out to be the exploration, and in a couple cases, the traps. The blind had no points of reference in Doom 1 or 2. No footstep sounds, no indication of where walls or doors were unless you happened to press the spacebar at the right time, and so on.

I almost abandoned all hope, but then I discovered a mystical, magical solution. Cheat codes! With these, I could have it all! I could wield every weapon in the game, I could walk through those annoying walls that blocked my path, and I could be invincible to my enemies! And if I could not locate the exit to a level, no problem. One quick code, and it was onto the next. Using this newfound knowledge, I rampaged through the demon hoards, laughing at my enemies as they expired before my tremendous might.

So I know what some of you may be thinking, and I get it. Technically, if I used cheat codes, I wasn’t really “playing” the game the way it was intended to be played, and argueably I wasn’t really completing levels either since I could jump around. You are correct, but consider these things. Firstly, accessibility of games wasn’t really a consideration back then. There was no real hope that Doom or Doom 2 would be made more accessible to the blind. Therefore, rather than not play it at all, I did so in such a way that I found lots and lots and lots of enjoyment in it. Given the circumstances, I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Secondly, I would argue that, in some cases, making a game accessible sometimes requires us to play it in a way it may not originally have been intended. Of course, the ultimate goal is always to preserve as much of the game as possible, adding accessibility while maintaining the developer’s vision, but still, changes must be made. Cheat codes, at the time, represented ways to change a game to make it more playable in cases where it wasn’t already. I repeated my Doom strategy several times on games like Duke Nukem 3d, Blood, and so on, and had great fun with all of them.

Another great example of cheat code use to get enjoyment out of a game I cannot necessarily play to its fullest is Grand Theft Auto. Oh I Thoroughly enjoyed it when my friends played the GTA games for me, allowing me to hear the story, but I longed to get into the action in some way. Imagine my elation when I learned what cheat codes existed in those games. Imagine my delight when I learned I could summon a tank.

Yes, that is where that’s right. My enjoyment of GTA3, Vice City, and San Andreas all came from getting the greatest weapons, lots of ammo, and a tank, then causing mayhem. Call it a stress reliever, call it a disturbing peak into my young mind, call it what you want, but I LOVED it. I couldn’t do much else, but man oh man I could spend hours laughing as police cars attempted to ram my tank and exploded on impact. It was just something in a video game that made me feel awesome for a little while. I promise I am not a psycho.

Cheat codes these days are a little less prevalent. There are still some games that have them, but they were once far, far more common. We’re also in an age, though, where accessibility is being taken more seriously, so I’m not all that worried about it. The point here is that, among other things like fighting games and surprising gaming accomplishments, cheat codes were also part of my gateway into gaming, and I would say they were just as important a part as all the others. They taught me that there was more than one way to enjoy a game, and I think that’s part of the reason I tend to think outside the box when it comes to accessibility ideas. The influence is real, and I’m proud to acknowledge it. As always, thanks so much for reading, and of course feel free to give your feedback however you like. Continue to be awesome!